21 April 2016

JAUNA MUZIKA 16: 5 Composers, 5 Pieces, lots of amplification

Last night was the second performance in the JAUNA MUZIKA 16 festival. The concert featured five brand new works, by five different Lithuanian composers who, funnily enough, I have wittered about on here at some point in the past. The performance in the Menu Spaustuves Black Hall, was of a very high quality and the mood was just right for premieres; full of excitement, nerves, and curiosity.

The first work Delta Cephei by Marius Baranauskas, was for the smallest instrumentation, but you'd have no idea when you listened to it. The piece was inspired by a quadruple star system in Cepheus and various parameters were used to shape the colour, tempi, and motivic development. The work was powerfully austere in the opening, with only a few scraps and brushes to move the music along, but despite this it always felt very rich and full. The cellist, Povilas Jacunskas, played every gesture with beauty and grace and Tomas Kulikauskas on percussion brought out every minute detail of the tam-tam to life. The shape and nuance of the work was profound and striking, this could easily be the strongest piece I have heard by Marius. I distinctly feel Marius enters a new realm when working with a chamber group, having to bring the most out of them to build the richest and most profound music. Who needs an orchestra when you have an amplified tam-tam?

Following this came Julius Aglinskas's '...' for string quartet. Instantly the worked revealed its intentions to challenge the notion of 'quartet' by separating the group into two duos. The lack of direct interaction between the duos was curious indeed, and the electronics went on the colour and blur the sensation of what we heard in front of us. The musicality was modest, and I kept finding myself pondering how much it reminded me of 'Jesus' love never failed me yet' by Gavin Bryars or even 'Lento' by Howard Skempton. However I did find the modesty began to stray too close to predictability, I imagine if it started from even less or was more radical and sparse by stretching it over a longer period of time would have been a far more impressive work.

Then came my other personal highlight of the concert, Diana Cemeryte's Les essais c'est tout II for string quartet, percussion and electronics. With whistles and clicks the music grew. I was so enthralled I struggled to write notes about it during the performance. The musicality was profound and striking. Every note struck to my core, and gripped me. The work had me eagerly wanting more. There was such austere beauty and profound sense of violence from five instruments, the work always advanced never resting and always on the attack. The intense restriction was so strong that when the simple electronic part came to the foreground I was dumbfounded by it. A truly elegant work and it was a real luxury to listen to the premiere.

After some shuffling came a work by Albertas Navickas, called 'tylos'. The piece started being very playful and inviting with the bowed cymbals in a cheeky counterpoint with the visuals on the screen. From this the work grew, building more and more colour, and feeling like it was accelerating, then suddenly the electronics started talking and instantly I was put off by it. The simple flaw in the work is it was almost identical to 'Different Trains' by Steve Reich, and why should I listen to a different work when I could listen to Reich; if I ever wanted to. It did sadden me this fact, because it was dedicated to his Grandma's 95th birthday, which is wonderfully sweet, but the music was just a pale imitation of something else.

And then, the finale came in the form of Monika Sokaite's 'O Tu Illustrata'; a setting of texts by Hildergard von Bingen for Baritone (doubling glockenspeil), string quartet, percussion and electronics. Instantly it could be seen the work was striving to achieve something big. Starting from a very still build up of chords built upon the foundation of the bass drum. The entrance of the baritone was nice, and the melodic line was rather pretty; but the positives were kind of ruined by the fact they were soaked in reverb. The piece moved along and climaxes were rammed down the throat simply because they were loud. At times the interaction between the different entities began to fall apart, as string quartet was often drowned out by the percussion, and due to all the reverb on the baritone he lost all the wonderful clarity in his voice. It was wonderful to see the composer strive for something more, but sadly this didn't achieve much, if this concert taught us anything doing less is far more striking and powerful. Sometimes the most heartfelt and profound gesture is whispered and not shouted.

The musicians in the concert were of a wonderful calibre, five disparate pieces can be a nightmare for any ensemble to do well, but the members of the Art Vio quartet were more than up for the task. Tomas Kulikauskas on percussion showed his clout throughout the concert, and Vaidrius Smilinskas has a bright future as a singer ahead of him, would love to hear him again in the future.

The festival has been very strong this year, and I am glad to see it hasn't fallen into the trap of producing its own 'festival sound' a rarity among festivals I fear. So the organisers of the festival do deserve congratulations for the success of this year.

19 April 2016

JAUNA MUZIKA 2016 - Vidmantas Bartulis Dekonstrukcija I

Last night saw the beginning of the JAUNA MUZIKA festival 2016. The JAUNA MUZIKA festival is Lithuania's leading electronic music festival. This year, the composers of focus are Johannes Kreidler and David Behrmann whose concerts are towards the end of the week. The opening concerts are dedicated to Lithuanian composers. The very first concert was the showing of Vidmantas Bartulis's audio-visual work, Dekonstrukcija I. I was curious to see this work as I had not had an opportunity to hear any of Bartulis's electronic works. Dekonstrukcija I was composed in cooperation with the visual artist Dziugas Katinas. 

And so there we were, slowly we walked into the dark cinema, an odd calm and eagerness awaited the crowd. We all took our seats on the sofas and a hush came across the audience. From the silence, came a resonating drone, and from the darkness, a single cell. Suddenly it was destroyed. 

From this destruction came a new birth, accompanied by a new image, the cell still in the centre. The music and imagery produced an hypnotic sensation, but never letting you rest into a comfortable flow. From this came pulsing percussive sounds giving a constant sense of energy but the drones never leading us anywhere. 

As the work progresses, the drones shift around on a vaguely motivic shaping, but the growing destruction subverted any 'progress' in the work. The imagery on the screen, evoked a solemnity akin to Turner, the still, hazy natural landscape, full of a calm and beautiful sadness. Kudos to Dziugas Katinas. 

The destructive gestures continue evolving, narrowing avoiding predictability. The combination of the musical gestures, situational mood, created a sensation similar to any play by Samuel Beckett; with the static moments of real beauty but buzzing with microscopic energy. 

The whole work was an intriguing exploration and contemplation of self. The visual elements allowed the music just to sit in place. The space was in a calm abiding, struck by the mood and hypnotic quality of the work. The work, managed to narrowly avoid cliches, and the sensation of destruction was never predictable. I am still unsure how I feel about the work as a whole. I was left pondering it for hours long after the concert. And this morning the simple realisation came to me. If a work leaves you thinking, that is all you can ask of it. Whether I am sold on it, doesn't really matter; it has left me constantly considering the concert. 

This is one of the more brilliant qualities of Vidmantas Bartulis, a quiet modesty which simply leaves you pondering. There are very few artists in this world who calmly and solemnly show their piece, not demanding lots from you, but somehow you find yourself periodically thinking about the work you saw. The work is growing on me in an odd manner, but this being said, the work is a true piece of art. 

Another concert on Wednesday, until then here is a wonderful piece by Bartulis for you to enjoy. 

17 April 2016

Kevad Tallinnas

Thanks to the world of twitter I was able to discover Klassika Raadio's online portal, which has allowed me to listen to a wonderful concert in Tallinn that happened on Friday. The concert is with the Eesti Riiklik Sumfooniaorkester under the wonderful baton of Anu Tali.

The concert featured five Estonians, Maria Korvits, Mari Vihmand, Mirjam Tally, Ulo Krigul, and Lepo Sumera; and for me this concert was a good chance to hear Estonian composers that had slipped past my radar.

The concert started with Maria Korvits's Langedes ulespoole, taeva kaarjasse kaussi for symphony orchestra and was premiered in the concert. The work hypnotically circles on itself growing organically and reaches really rich magical colours. Admittedly at times it felt a bit too close to the wonderful Helena Tulve, but still a nice treat for my ears.

Following this was Mari Vihmand's Floreo, a work written in 1996 and was the eldest work in the programme. In short it was gorgeous. Really sumptuous and glorious, it left me rather stunned in my tiny little flat. Definitely need to find more of Mari Vihmand!

Then after this came Mirjam Tally's Erosioon for cello, symphony orchestra, and electronics. The work was intensive and driving, a really clever use of the soloist and the electronics. The opening grunt of the cello instantly shouted 'listen to me!', this brutal work was thrilling. The soloist was always in control and from what I could hear must have been enjoying themselves throughout. This was definitely the most original and purposeful pieces in the concert. A composer who not only knows what they want to say and shouts it at you while throttling you will always get high praise from me.

Ulo Kirgul's Understandards for vocal ensemble and orchestra had a certain charm to it. Estonian Voices were in solid control of what they had to sing. It was playful and fun, the connection to jazz at times was a bit crass and tacky but it all made sense and fitted to itself. Not for me, but a nicely crafted work. Admittedly after living in the Baltic during the winter, I did heavily consider the text 'You think you've seen the sun?' very true statement indeed.

The finale was Lepo Sumera's symphony no. 6. A monumental and powerful work. Sumera is a composer I have been meaning to get round to discussing this marvelous composer. The symphony is dark brooding and powerful. Out of the darkness comes moments of beauty brighter than anything I can think of. Anu Tali really made a wonderful interpretation of this magnificent piece, at no point did I feel it was a conductor playing contemporary pieces, she almost fooled me into thinking this work is one of the most standard pieces of repertoire; Bravo Anu Tali!

This concert was a wonderful eye opener for me and I shall definitely keep an eye fixed on it so I can listen to more wonderful concerts in Estonia. For those curious about the concert listen to it here. Admittedly I am unsure how long it will stay online, but I hope it stays on long enough for many people to find it and fall in love with it!

Lietuvos Kamerinis Orkestras Celebrate Juzeliunas Centenary

This is the start of a very busy week for this blog, tomorrow marks the start of the Jauna Muzika Festival. But last night was the performance of the Lietuvos Kamerinis Orkestras in the Philharmonic Hall here in Vilnius. This concert I have been waiting eagerly for ever since I discovered it was going to happen. The concert featured,two of my favourite works by Julius Juzeliunas, and a dosage of Bartok is always a good treat too.

To start the concert was Juzeliunas's magnificent concerto for organ, violin and string orchestra. The three movement work are full of skilled counterpoint, intensive musical interactions between the soloists and orchestra, and driving intensity. The soloists were Karolina Juodelyte (organ) and Dzeraldas Bidva (violin) with Adrija Cepaite conducting the proceedings. 

The opening movement starts with a strong chord from the organ, shattering the calm in the hall. The string orchestra's rebuttal is intensive and already the work jumps into a highly competitive concerto. The entrance of the violin soloist adds to the musical drama, and even in the first movement's calmer passages, the atmosphere is bubbling with energy and potential. 

The second movement is a growing passacaglia, which starts in the pedals of the organ and grows outwards from there. Adrija Cepaite really crafted the orchestra as she wanted, never straying from her intentions in the movement, but I found myself wishing she let the movement go a bit wilder. If performed with a bit more bite, the movement really hammers home and is just a stunning sight to behold. 

The finale is starts with a fugal material, once again starting in the organ, the lines are far more melismatic and flow seamlessly and elegantly. Karolina Juodelyte really showed her clout as an organist, always being a solid base for the orchestra to respond to, even in the most virtuosic passages. The music in the orchestra, like in previous movements, grew up to a sudden release allowing the musical to find an unsettled calm. The movement reached an almost cadenza-like area where the soloists were able to interact freely before the drama kicked off again. The performance never lost its drive, but this movement was definitely the most unstable movement in regards to performance. 

In this performance, without a doubt the best musician there was Karolina Juodelyte. At no point in the performance did she ever feel unnerved or less than in complete control of the piece. The virtuosity of the work almost felt like at times it was there just to make her look even better, a performer I definitely want to witness performing again. Dzeraldas Bidva was a very good violinist, but I felt he was very nearly beaten by this concerto. He never felt in complete control of the work, ultimately it wasn't completely under his fingers. This being said, it is very clear he is a strong performer, but needs to be witnessed with repertoire he is stronger at. Adrija Cepaite always kept the orchestra in good control, her leadership of the piece was ultimately strong, but I didn't agree with many of her musical interpretations of the work. However, she defiantly made her statement with this work, which has to commended. It is always a pleasure to see a conductor who has something to say.

Before the break was Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. The pairing of Bartok and Juzeliunas is definitely a classy and wise choice, but a part of me would have loved something with a bit more of that oomph that we know and love in Bartok, like his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. This being said, the performance was flawless, full of character and wit. The orchestra are definitely in their element with this kind of repertoire. Adrija gave the work a lot of wit and charm and the orchestra responded in kind, its hard to say anything negative after a performance that was just down right solid and eloquent. 

After the interval came the highlight of the whole concert. Juzeliunas's fifth symphony Lygumu Giesmes. Those who have read this blog, know how much I love this work. You can see a more detailed discussion of it here

The two movement symphony was accompanied by the girl's choir of the Vilnius Liepaites Choral school. The opening of the symphony was handled well, admittedly starting a bit too loud I think, this was especially apparent when the rest of the orchestra joined in; their attack should have jolted listeners instead of tickling them lightly. The build up was handled well. The entrance of the choir was beautiful, but if they were even quieter it would have been truly ethereal. The work carries on building and sadly this wasn't quite as effective as the emphasis was always on the highest and lowest voices, the subtle changes in the middle of the texture went by unnoticed. Also a few wrong notes and unequal chord voicings ruined the beauty in places.

The second movement started with a real drive, and the girls in the choir were really keen on the adding stamping and clapping, admittedly I am sure they could have given it more welly. Once again the emphasis was on top and bottom and so the intensity that was given by the middle was weakened. Also the 10/8 time signature did a times feel a bit much for the orchestra, who were almost put in their place by the sheer strength and confidence of the Liepaites choir. 

Sadly I was unconvinced by the performance of this wonderful symphony, but Adrija Cepaite knew what she wanted to say and sadly it loudly and proudly. So kudos to her. After the performance of the symphony came a charming little song setting for the choir, which ultimately was just adorable, this choir know how to steal the audience's hearts. 

To finish this post here is a recording of the second movement of Juzeliunas's concerto for organ, violin and string orchestra. Enjoy and I'll be back very soon with a multitude of reviews. 

8 April 2016

Zoom In

Last week I waffled about the wonderful Jurgis Maciunas CD I finally managed to get a copy of. This week is similar as I am going to be discussing another CD I received last week, Zoom in 11. The Zoom In... series was set up in 2002 by the Lithuanian Music Information Centre. Every year a CD is produced which features multiple composers from all walks of life in Lithuania. The selected works throughout the years are often pieces that received rewards or major critical acclaim in the year they were written.

I have been slowly gathering these CDs over the years, my current stash includes Zoom in 5,6,7,9,10, and now 11. These have been a wonderful eye opener for me over the years. Many of the giants in the musical landscape have been featured over the years. The production of these CDs are definitely an honourable venture as it promotes the newest pieces of music being written currently. Particularly when it comes to the production of CDs of contemporary music, the releases are often 10 years after the work is finished; or far worse, especially when you hunt for more obscure names.

This year's edition, Zoom in 11, features seven composers with works premiered in 2014. 

First on the disc is the giant Osvaldas Balakauskas (1937), his Prayer for Maidan was composed mostly out of his personal reaction to the unfolding events in Ukraine. Balakauskas's connection to Ukraine is very long standing, mostly from the fact he himself studied composition there. Prayer for Maidan is a powerful and gut churning work for string orchestra. Full of potency and beauty, once again Balakauskas proves why he is so important to the musical landscape here.

The next work is Fragments for symphony orchestra by Julius Aglinskas (1988), I was extremely positive of his solo piano work that was featured in the Gothic Hall Concert last month. This work is also equally impressive. Whereas the last work I commented on was more akin to Feldman, Fragments is remarkably similar to Howard Skempton or early works by Hans Abrahamsen like Walden. The circling piano chords build and grow organically into a really moving and modest work for orchestra. I am now beginning to be curious about what a large scale work by Julius Aglinskas would sound like? I have a sneaking suspicion it will be quite remarkable.

The following recording is by Rita Maciliunaite (1985), this is my first encounter with this composer, her work Autumn.Calendar Leaves is for mezzo-soprano and string trio. The work is based on texts by Kristijonas Donelaitis and Indre Valantinaite. The songs a pretty still and dark, with a great sense of melancholy, the glittering of certain colours against the purity of the vocal melody produces some really beautiful moments. But I find this work falls apart very quickly with sudden sharp gestures breaking the mood, almost just so it can sound 'modern'. Not the most remarkable of works, but there is potential in this composer, I wonder what other works by her sound like.

Then comes a short work by the British based Egidija Medeksaite (1979). She is a composer who has been enjoying a growing success in Lithuania, with appearences in the GAIDA festival and appearing multiple times on the Zoom in.. series. The featured work Sandhi Prakash, like many works by the composer, draws on Indian philosophy and Indian musical language. The rolling string lines move around, growing from a small point moving outwards. Everything line is filled with lots of tremolandi and other extended colours. But like many works by Medeskaite, the connection to the philosophy seems vague at best, and the connection to the tradition always feels more like exoticism than just working with the musical language. Literally every time I listen to a work by her I hear the comments I can only imagine Param Vir would make. Like I said in the performance of her work in GAIDA, she has to go beyond just trying to sound new, she needs to write something that holds up without depending on the philosophy for it to make sense, her craft needs to be the solid foundation of everything, and instead we get hypnotic soundscapes which are a diet Ligeti and just ultimately bore me; when the idea and the language has the potential to truly inspire and leave me in awe.

The fifth work to be featured on the disc is Jurgis Jarasius (1986) Acchor'deo. The keen observers here will know I commented on the purely electronic rendition of the work a few weeks ago and was content with what I heard. The music made sense, it sounds pretty, is modest, direct and works. The rendition featured on Zoom in 11 is the original intended rendition for string orchestra and electronics. The first thing I notice when it is played on the string instruments how much it sounds like Balakauskas. The electronic sounds interacting with the orchestra are very akin to Julian Anderson and some piece of Murail, where the electronics warp the original sound and add lots of colour as to take it beyond what the instrument can achieve. My only thought is in this rendition the electronics could take it so much further. As a string orchestra can comfortably cover the range of a piano, electronics have a hard time being truly necessary. So maybe the electronics could have pushed the harmonic and gestural language to a much greater extreme spectrum of colour and range. That being said, the music is still pretty solid and the modest of the work, does mean it holds together well.

The penultimate feature is Andrius Maslekovas (1985). His Calligraphies of the Last Rays is a charming and colourful work for trio. The subtle interplay of colour between the ensemble is handled very well, and the constant evolution is handled very well. The harmonic language is steady and really allows you to enjoy the subtleties of every note. The real strength in the work is the ability to not only use every instrument to their fullest within such a modest confine, but to also make every instrument quite poignant and vital to the work. A very strong work, and I hope to hear more large scale pieces from him in the future.

The final work on the CD is a piano concerto by Gintaras Sodeika (1961). This intensive work for piano and orchestra is very bold and hits you square in the jaw. The harmonic language and rhythmic interplay is akin to some of the more playful works of Janacek or Tippett. I have to thank Zoom in 11 for featuring this work, as embarrassingly I know considerably little about Sodeika and I really need to get to know him better. The concerto is fun and strong, I am surprised pianists around the world aren't jumping up and down at the chance of performing this wonderful edition to the repertoire.

As I said this CD series in invaluable, and has been a wonderful tool for me. I highly recommend every reader hunts for any edition of this collection as each CD shows the wide spectrum of music within Lithuania currently. The only curious thought I had when reading the little sleeve notes in this CD, is suggesting that there is no more 'grand narrative' within Lithuanian music. I am very picky on this kind of thinking, mostly because there is no musical grand narrative. It is a very old view of historians and musicologists which suggests the history of music happened in fixed stages and shifted as one, when in reality new ideas appeared, some caught on, some didn't, music slowly evolves and spreads a bit like a virus; the more people who catch it the more people know about it. The other issue with the 'grand narrative' thinking is it is extremely biased towards imperial Europe, as it implies any nation not up to their standard were primitive, its very akin to Rudyald Kipling talking about the 'White man's burden'. So having this form of thinking when considering the evolution of Lithuanian music, or any nation for that matter, is counter productive. Ultimately, due to the constraints under the Soviets, the spectrum of music was quite small, due to little information coming and experimentalism was rarely encouraged. Now the Soviets are long gone, the spectrum has been allowed to widen hence why suddenly 'sounding Lithuanian' is become less of symptom of music from Vilnius.

Rant over, to finish below is the recording of Prayer for Maidan simply because it and Balakauskas are amazing and always worth a listen. Enjoy and until next time!

1 April 2016

Jurgis (George) Maciunas

For those keen on the American avant-garde world of the past 60 years, the name Maciunas will be all too familiar. Jurgis (George) Maciunas (1931-78), was a Lithuanian-American artist, who was one of the masterminds behind the Fluxus publications. As we can see from the manifesto below, Fluxus was about rebellion and anti-art. Like many reactionary groups founded after the second world war, many artists were sick of the historic establishment as it was ultimately complicate, or at least strongly associated with the powers that lead innocent civilians into two world wars.

The artistic work of Jurgis Maciunas is staggering, mostly in its impact and originality. Like many works by artists associated by Fluxus, the artistic drive was expansive, contradictory, intelligent, anti-intellectual, deadly serious, and some comical.

To try and connect it to the 'grand narrative' of art Maciunas, like the other Fluxus gang, created in a landscape post-Dada and following the experimentations of John Cage. John Cage opened the floodgates allowing composers and artists to challenge many historical norms like:

what is self? what does it mean to be an artist? why compose? can we actually control anything? 

With these questions being left to artists to answer, artists associated with Fluxus hit the ground running with these philosophical conundrums. This stance encouraged Jurgis Maciunas to tackle art on so many levels. From architecture to music, from religion to poetry, Maciunas tackled it with fervour and originality. His essays were almost as expansive as his artistic work.

Recently the Lithuanian Music Information Centre with Apartment House produced a CD of works by the late great Maciunas. I finally got hold of a copy of the wonderful disc. It was definitely worth the wait. The disc combines eight different works by the artist:

1. In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti, version for ensemble
2. Solo for Rich Man
3. Piece for 3 Mouths (homage to Toshi Ichiyanagi)
4. Solo for Ballons (for Jean Pierre Wilhelm)
5. In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti, version for string quartet
6. Homage to Philip Corner, version for clarinet, cello, and piano
7. Solo for Violin (for Sylvano Bussotti)
8. Music for Everyman

The eight pieces were all written between 1961 and 1962 and show a real highlight of just some of the wonderfully original work Maciunas produced. The ensemble in every performance are so solid, every performance is as profound as it can be. For me my personal favourite is the Solo for Rich Man it is full of fascinating sounds and gestures, but is also wonderfully sarcastic; a perfect sign of a true genius. 

The CD is definitely worth getting hold of! Apartment House have been wonderful in their support of Lithuanian music, so even beyond this CD they should be commended for their brilliant work. To find out more about this stunning ensemble check out their website.

This has been a wonderfully brief look at Maciunas, a character I will definitely return to on this blog. But until then enjoy the video of Sonic Youth performing Maciunas's Piano Piece #13.